Cashing in on the Other: Race, Commodity and Surveillance of Contemporary Athletes

David Leonard

The predominance of black athletes within consumer culture and the values placed onto MJ, Kobe, Shaq, and others overshadow the realities of segregated schools, police brutality, unemployment, and a bigoted criminal justice system.

LeBron James commenting on China's banning of his Nike ad.

On November 15, the National Football League and its media partners once again found themselves amid controversy. On the heels of Janet Jackson baring her breast during last year's Super Bowl, the appearance of a Monday Night Football promotional skit involving the Philadelphia Eagles' Terrell Owens and Desperate Housewives' Nicolette Sheridan prompted much public debate and rancor. The skit, which contained an eventually naked Sheridan seducing Owens as he prepared for a game against the Dallas Cowboys, resulted in a whirlwind of controversy, 50,000 complaints to the FCC, and an avalanche of media posturing. With few exceptions (notably Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and PopMatters' Tobias Peterson and Mark Anthony Neal), the public discourse systematically erased race, reducing this public spectacle to one of moral values, corrupted children, and public sexuality. The tired rhetoric about exposing our youth to sexual spectacle played out with unrelenting redundancy -- the discourse of "wardrobe malfunction" reared its head once again.

Reflecting America's systematic removal of racial discourse, the reactionary bent of public discussion toward superficial dialogues about sexuality erases the significance of race and institutionalizes a brand of colorblind racism. This is especially the case in the world of sports, where the success of black athletes and the supposed adoration America has for the likes of MJ, Shaq, Tiger, and LeBron are cited repeatedly as evidence of the acceptance of black men within the sports world and society at large. The media has even touted the ability of Terrell Owens, as a black man, to merely appear on national television with a naked white woman as a symbol of America's racial progress. Such a narrative touts the era of the last 50 years of American sports as one of pure progress. In the past, we're to assume, black athletes faced discrimination from fans and coaches, but today's black athletes now apparently reap the benefits of societal adoration and millions in salaries.

The predominance of black athletes within consumer culture and the values placed onto MJ, Kobe, Shaq, and others, however, overshadow the realities of segregated schools, police brutality, unemployment, and a bigoted criminal justice system. The deployment of evidence that purports to affirm colorblindness erases the many institutions and occurrences that demonstrate the continued relevance of race and confines racism to Klan rallies and skinheads. Such restriction also obfuscates the racial context of both the Owens skit and the subsequent (sexually charged) reaction of shock and awe, effectually eliminating a discourse crucial to examining the racial elements of contemporary commodity culture.

For example, as America's pulse raced amid societal fears about the impact of Monday Night Football's sexualized skit, Nike and Adidas quietly continued to run their "controversial" marketing campaigns under the national radar. This year's Nike spot features LeBron James battling an unspecified number of Asian martial artists, all of whom are highly racialized within a fantastical "Chamber of Fear". The commercial shows James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' second-year sensation, in a video game-style setting defeating a Kung Fu master, two women in traditional Chinese attire, and a pair of dragons (considered a sacred symbol in traditional Chinese culture) in a game of one-on-one. Neither the power of Kung Fu nor the ferocity of the dragons holds James back, who not only scores on his opposition, but does so using karate style moves and kicks.

The ad quickly generated outrage from the Chinese government, who banned the spot and denounced it as an affront to Chinese culture. A government representative issued a statement citing that the advertisement "violates regulations that mandate that all advertisements in China should uphold national dignity and interest and respect the motherland's culture. It also goes against rules that require ads not to contain content that blasphemes national practices and cultures." The statement additionally noted, "The ad has received an indignant response from Chinese viewers." Denigrated by China as blasphemous, the ban is a major blow to Nike's (and the NBA's) plans to capitalize on the blossoming Chinese basketball market. Domestically, as well, members of the Chinese-American community have expressed similar outrage. "Kung fu and the dragon, both are symbols of national pride," contended Sujian Guo, the editor of the Journal of Chinese Political Science in San Francisco. "It feels like American culture has defeated Chinese culture," he said. "American basketball has defeated Chinese culture and they feel offended and humiliated."

As Guo's statement reflects, the related critical discourse has been limited to the ways in which the commercial demeans China and advances an essentialist vision of Chinese culture. Although never referencing racism or the long history of Western fetishization/demonization of the "Eastern Other", the ad's rhetoric clearly embraces, if not endorses, racist attitudes. As such, I view the commercial through a different paradigm that links its ideologies, images, and aesthetics to a longstanding history of western (white) demonization of Asia; it fits with the historical practice of imagining the "East" through an Orientalist framework.

Edward Said describes the Orientalist discourse that imagines (infatantalizes) the "East" in the following way: "Orientals or Arabs are thereafter shown to be gullible, 'devoid of energy and initiative', much given to 'fulsome flattery', intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or a pavement (their disordered minds fail to understand what the clever European grasps immediately, the roads and pavements are made for walking); Orientals are inveterate liars, they are 'lethargic and suspicious', and in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race" (Orientalism, 1979, pages 37-38). They are mysterious and dangerous, yet exotic and alluring.

Stuart Hall concurs with his essay, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora", writing that the representation of people of color is "not only, in Said's 'Orientalist' sense, constructed as different and other within the categories of knowledge of the West by those regimes. They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as 'Other'. It is one thing to position a subject or set of peoples as the Other of a dominant discourse. It is quite another thing to subject them to that 'knowledge', not only as a matter of imposed will and domination, but by the power of inner compulsion and subjective conformation to the norm." It is within this discursive field that I read Nike's "LeBron in the Chamber of Fear" commercial. The emphasis on the fantastical world of the Orient, with all the trappings of the exotic, mysterious, sinister, and magical, replicates longstanding Orientalist ideologies.

The "race card" never emerged in the case of the LeBron ad (with nationality trumping the racial implication of the commercial), as the media reaction undermined claims of ethnocentrism while further erasing the racial history and significance of the commercial. In response to the condemnation and its commercial being banned, Nike quickly apologized, claiming ignorance to the purported offense. Shelly Peng, a representative of Nike within China, announced that, "It was not Nike's intent to show disrespect to the Chinese culture." The mainstream U.S. media dismissed the reaction as excessive, unwarranted, and not surprising given China's political orientation. Others focused on Nike's tendency toward controversy, linking this commercial to a long history of Nike's edgy efforts, which include Charles Barkley's "I am not a role mode," Tiger Woods' "Is the world ready for me," and a commercial featuring Suzy Hamilton being chased by a masked man with a chain saw. "Nike has a well-deserved reputation for sailing close to the edge in its advertising -- so it's no surprise that a Nike ad courts controversy," argued marketing professor John Quelch, a senior associate dean at the Harvard Business School. Bruce Newman, a professor of marketing at DePaul University, similarly noted the possibility that the ad "could be an ignorant mistake, or a marketing misfire," yet left the door open for alternative interpretations: "but it could also be a case of knowing that if they can connect with a young audience -- which I'm guessing is in the hundreds of millions, there could be a swelling of demand such that they could care less about what the government says."

Just as it is important to reflect upon the anti-Asian, Orientalist, nature of the commercial, it is equally important to reflect on its racial politics inside the United States. While both the league and its media partners have celebrated Yao Ming's arrival in the NBA, this commercial equally plays as a backlash against the "Asian" (foreign) invasion into American sporting arenas. LeBron defends American basketball purity in defeating the enemies of the "East". The irony of claiming a black man as the defender of American cultural (basketball) purity, given the demonization of contemporary black athletes, is not lost here. Still, it is no coincidence that LeBron, the NBA's newest golden child, is imagined as a part from hip-hop, the ghetto, and other pollutants that stereotypically corrupt the image of black athletes in the NBA.

Tracy McGrady

As the discussion of the ad has obfuscated the Orientalist implications of the commercial as part of a long history of anti-Asian popular culture, the anti-black racial elements have equally been lost in the American public discourse. The Nike commercial, as with much of today's commodity culture, reifies dominant visions of black physicality, painting blacks as people of superhuman strength. In this commercial, as in LeBron's comic book poses for Power Aid, the camera, with its manipulation of slow motion imagery and angles, emphasizes his body, excessive muscles, and unimaginable strength as the explanation for his dominance on the court. No opposition, even those with powerful punches and kicks, can prevent him from elevating to the basket. He is powerful, productive, and an embodiment of racialized physicality. He is scary, yet obedient, dangerous, yet productive, fulfilling a longstanding white supremacist fantasy of blackness, as Homi Bhabha explains: "The black is both savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and dignified of servants (the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces" (The Location of Culture, 1994, page 82).

Nike has not been alone in selling its products on the backs of black bodies, though. Adidas, attempting to compete with the ultimate shoe power, has recently begun its own national campaign featuring Tracy McGrady. In the Adidas commercial, McGrady dribbles furiously as miniature soldiers in white uniforms shoot in his direction and tiny helicopters attempt to thwart his drive to the basket with tripwires. The commercial appears to be a direct reference to King Kong, with McGrady donning the role of the giant monster, uncontrollable because of his power yet domesticated enough to elicit pleasure from the white populace. As the diminutive planes and men shoot in McGrady's direction, he weaves in-and-out, dodging their deadly obstacles as he fulfills his mission to score, entertain, and generate dollars. Not bullets, Huey helicopters, tanks, nor any other military arsenal can stop this physically gifted giant of a man. His physical dominance (blackness) overpowers the soldiers' technological strengths (whiteness). The commercial is visually powerful, operating on imagery of a black man so focused on sport that he would traverse a military battlefield.

The commercial is striking because of this military theme, especially considering that "we are at war" with nations that are subject to anti-Asian, Orientalist discourse in the mainstream American media. Over the last two years, media and fans alike have chastised several athletes, from Kevin Garnett to Kellen Winslow, for invoking military language and references to war to describe their sports world. Yet the same criticisms do not carry over to this military-themed commercial. In both commercials, the power and physical stature of two black (athletic) male bodies are no match for either the Orientalist skills of those guarding the Chamber of Fear or the white sentinels protecting the basket from a T-Mac dunk.

The racialized overtones of these ads, in reality, are nothing new. The practice of using blackness to sell products to predominantly white consumers is longstanding. From pancakes and breakfast cereal to alcohol and sports apparel, businesses have historically used a palpable blackness defined by either clownish qualities or physical control to draw in white consumers. While no longer anonymous and service-oriented like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben, LeBron, T.O, and T-Mac are no less reflective of this history of commodity racism. As Anne McClintock explains in her book, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, racism does not merely penetrate the surface of media culture through advertisements, but constitutes a project in which whites connect race, pleasure, and service.

It should be clear, through these three examples, the ways in which the contemporary sports media constructs and deploys racialized tropes and images in its efforts to sell a vision of contemporary sports. Yet paradigms of colorblindness remain untouched, legitimizing hegemonic visions of contemporary American race politics. Amid discourses demonizing black (athletic) bodies as immoral and dangerous, these spectacles illustrate the contradictory place of blackness within popular culture, one that sells and finds celebration while it faces surveillance and opposition.

Although the popular discourse positions these commercials and the place of athletes within public spaces as a sign of progress, these ads ultimately reflect a movement away from docile images to those of hyper-physicality, effectually reducing blackness to animal-ness. Whether it's the hypersexual Owens, the King-Kong-esque T-Mac, or the Kung Fu master LeBron, the danger of their commodified bodies reflect their threat to "traditional values" as well. Just as black bodies persist as sources of pleasure, profit, and control, an Orientalist discourse maintains a long history of commodity racism concerning Asian communities. The latest Nike commercial reifies hegemonic visions of Asianness while, at the same time, advancing stereotypes of black physicality. The emerging discourse, one that dismisses and erases the significance of racial (racist) meaning, however, keeps meaningful critique at arm's length.





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